Damn Magazine July 2012

Laughing at the Reaper
David LaChapelle revisited

For this artist, life has definitely served as a laboratory. From his work being rejected to lapped-up to scorned to admired by the public, as he, in parallel, went from feeling confounded to compromised to fed-up to revived and reformed, David LaChapelle has pretty much proven that life is what you make it, and that as long as an artist retains his sense of vision, he can afford to roll with whatever happens en route. In sharing some of his experiences with DAMN°'s man in New York, we learn more about his journey through thick and thin.

David LaChapelle has a message for all the frustrated artists out there, the legion shut-out of galleries, ignored by critics and dissed by the public at large: go do something else. And if you can keep in mind why you wanted to be an artist in the first place, all that you wished for might come back to you in the end. LaChapelle didn’t quite put it this way when we sat down together in March for a public conversation at the School of Visual Arts Theatre in New York, but I had seen his recent work in an exhibition at Fred Torres Collaborations – a group of large still lifes collectively titled Earth Laughs in Flowers – and it confirmed his re-entry into the New York art world. I wanted to ask him about this, since he was now clearly on a different path from the one that made him famous and made his images notorious in the fashion world. What he revealed was the overriding importance of artistic vision in everything he has done. Almost from the start, the art world did its best to ignore him, and yet if it hadn’t been for that, there might not have been a David LaChapelle. In the early 1980s, LaChapelle came to New York after finishing art school and found it to be the place where he truly belonged.

He could live as an artist and as a gay man. And in spite of the AIDS epidemic that was tearing through the city – or perhaps because of it – he could confront life, death, pleasure, and his own body with an extreme intensity. That carried over into his work. Many of his early projects were collage- or processbased, and most of them explored the body – as a physical reality and a symbolic site. There were echoes of earlier photographic pioneers, from F. Holland Day and Edmund Teske to Arthur Tress, with an East Village edge. At the same time, the connections of his imagery to the broader currents of body art put him at the centre of the decade’s art issues, even if they tapped into themes as old as the Renaissance. Looking at the early work in long retrospect, its earnestness, religious overtones, sense of mortality, and concern for beauty stand out. Here was a young artist who loved the still photographic image and believed absolutely in the redemptive power of art.

The problem was, as LaChapelle tells it, nobody was interested. He had three early exhibitions in the East Village, and the last one was so sparsely attended (and un-reviewed) that he went back to the drawing board. “It was devastating", he said. But by the late 1980s, he was already working for magazines like Interview and getting attention. “If I was going to find another outlet, I didn’t want to burn the bridges", he declared, “I wanted to blow them up.” Extremism The rest, as they say, is history. LaChapelle is known for perhaps the most influential and extreme images of fashion and celebrities over the course of nearly two decades, in a culture obsessed by such. Other photographers pushed a few buttons, mostly sexual - Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, to name two. But LaChapelle pushed cultural and political buttons as well: the rapper Tupak Shakur as a field slave; Pamela Anderson bashing a pretty-boy to a bloody pulp with a baseball bat; a model crushed by a giant hamburger; Carmen Electra and Dave Navarro laid out like a noir Romeo and Juliet on autopsy tables, for the series Tabloid Love Story. All this was done in a signature pop style, with artificial sets, amped-up colours and broad stroke choreography. No Photoshop. The Warhol lineage notwithstanding, the New York art crowd couldn’t quite accept the overstatement, but the fashion world couldn’t get enough.

After frying your eyes with a LaChapelle story, everything else looked kind of boring. It still does. But there was trouble in paradise, an underlying contradiction that I couldn’t help asking him about. LaChapelle’s agenda, even when he was just doing what he was told, was always, as he put it “to express the things I was most concerned about: the desire for some spiritual connection, the damage we are doing to the environment, the emptiness of celebrity." (He added, almost in passing, that of all the celebrities he has worked with, he never knew one who was content. That kind of perception informed the Everytime video he made with Britney Spears in 2004 in which her success leads to despair and suicide). But wasn’t that the problem for LaChapelle the artist, that he was delivering morality tales to an audience that couldn’t really accept them? His reply: “I never thought about that. I wanted to communicate what was in my head.

I never really expected people to look for the subtext." That message was getting pretty dark, in spite of the jokes. In 2002 i-D magazine quashed a photo story he shot called What Will You Wear When You're Dead?, the first time that had ever happened. It was like a cake of soap sinking at Procter & Gamble. Images such as a diaphanous, white-gowned spirit leaving the scene of a woman killed on the pavement by a falling air-conditioner, were apparently just a bit much. Maybe he was simply getting too serious. “It was a sign", he said. The allegorical series, Jesus is My Homeboy, didn’t fare much better with the i-D editors (“You can’t shock anybody in the fashion world but just mention the word Jesus and people freak-out.”). In 2006, after finishing RIZE, his breakthrough feature documentary on the LA street dance scene, things changed for good. LaChapelle more or less bailed. He cut back on commercial work, bought a former nudist colony in Hawaii and turned it into a farm. A breakdown? “I just couldn’t see myself chasing after the next LindsayLohan in a bathroom stall somewhere. I didn’t have anything left to say in that medium.

Let younger kids who want to make those images do it.” Worth a thousand words But he had plenty left to say in photographs, and after 2006 he could do this without compromise, as he did when he was young and nobody was paying attention. His work since then has become thoroughly allegorical, laden with images of martyrdom and judgment, channelling Michelangelo and Caravaggio in equal part. Michael Jackson, Courtney Love, Kanye West, and LaChapelle himself have all become figures in a spiritual passion play. Even the ad campaigns he has chosen to shoot get the symbolist treatment. In 2009, for the Maybach automobile brand, LaChapelle evoked the decadent end of the Weimar republic and its Nazi birthing – not your standard luxury car campaign. This all culminated in 2011, in an exhibition at Lever House Gallery in the landmark modernist building in New York. Here LaChapelle unveiled his monumental tableau The Deluge and the large collage

The Raft of Illusion Raging Toward Truth, a giant jeremiad from a fashion insider, the end of the consumerist world conceived as a flood that would sweep away Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas and Gucci. Yet, as LaChapelle pointed out, a cataclysm in which people finally have to turn to each other for safety. Coming to terms with life The series Earth Laughs in Flowers and its companion piece Gaia, show the influence of LaChapelle’s retreat to the rural. They are the most traditional and probably the most personal works he has made, as if he were a contemporary Virgil contemplating imperial Rome from exile. The mood is elegiac but not tragic. Completed in 2011, Earth Laughs in Flowers (the title is taken from a poem by the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson) arrived in New York after appearing in the retrospective exhibition Thus Spoke LaChapelle at the Galerie Rudolfinum in Prague. Its timing, coming in the wake of the financial collapse that resulted from a period of incredible excess – the very excess that LaChapelle walked away from – could not have been more apt.

The arrangements of flowers, natural and artificial, with an array of objects, from the tabloid covers of the New York Post to rotting fruit, cell phones, and Flintstones vitamins, explicitly references the moralising tradition of 16th century Dutch painting and vanitas imagery. One piece from the series, Deathless Winter, is all pale tones and white light, with the flowers themselves wrapped in plastic, surrounded by pill containers and hospital IV tubes.

Text by Lyle Rexer

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